Vasan Bala has always felt that Indian middle class life, inherently, lacks drama. It moved at a sedate pace in the educated, residential Matunga, where Bala grew up in the 80s. Since most of its inhabitants — who settled there in the 20s and 30s, because of its proximity to the factories that were coming up in Sion and Sewri — had jobs rather than businesses, the mindset was of a certain type. "Everyone followed a particular rule. Everyone woke up in the morning to earn a salary for someone else… It was very clear that you study to have a job. Your father did it, your grandfather did it, and everyone around you did the same," he says.
Movies were the obvious escape. All kinds of movies for Bala, but especially the Hong Kong action films of Bruce Lee, and later, Jackie Chan. But it was with the rise of the Mumbai underworld in the early 90s that the thrill became real. Larger-than-life stories of gangsters assumed mythic proportions; everyone "wanted to be a part of bhai culture.""I mean, you had no guts, no reason, and thankfully no access, to do that," says Bala, "But you always felt you are in a bigger conflict than you are supposed to be in. And then in your mind you are doing kung fu, boxing, and a lot of other things." It is this sense of heightened action, juvenile fantasies dreamt up from within the confines of middle class upbringing, that is at the heart of the action-comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Bala's second feature film, and his first to get a release.
It was with the rise of the Mumbai underworld in the early 90s that the thrill became real. Larger-than-life stories of gangsters assumed mythic proportions; there was a time when everyone "wanted to be a part of bhai culture.""I mean, you had no guts, no reason, and thankfully no access, to do that," says Bala, "But you always felt you are in a bigger conflict than you are supposed to be in. And then in your mind you are doing kung fu, boxing, and a lot of other things."
The film's young hero, Surya, who grows up on a diet of martial art movies seen on VHS tapes, frequently slips into spells of daydreaming (underlined by ultra slow motion sequences). But nowhere in the film is this contrast, between the middle class setting and flights of fancy, more evident than in the staging of the climactic fight. True to Bala's memories of conducting WWE tournaments using gaddas, and creating Fantasy Match scenarios with friends from his building — What if Bruce Lee faced The Undertaker? — Surya (Abhimanyua Dassani) fights the megalomaniac villain Jimmy (Gulshan Devaiah) in the compound of the cooperative housing society he grew up in. (Also, a nod to Enter the Dragon, where Han, the villain, challenges Lee, in a private tournament in his island.) It has a fanciful title: Vidya Bhavan Royal Rumble; in the film's seemingly realistic setting it is made possible because the building has been evacuated for redevelopment.
Bala doesn't live in Matunga anymore — although he keeps visiting "on and off". But we meet there on the Saturday after his film's release. We begin with South Indian breakfast at Sharda Bhavan, a 1936 establishment that serves cheap, good food, and which according to Bala, is a lot more spacious, and better, than the famous ones in the area. Here he has bumped into a college batchmate he hasn't seen in twenty years. Bala seems quite amazingly chilled out for a person whose film has just released, and not to encouraging box office figures. The other release, Kesari, starring Akshay Kumar, has dwarfed Mard's presence even more, which has released in about 450 screens. "I've told my team to just check the reports on Monday, and move on," he says, adding that the film wasn't expecting to do big numbers anyway. "It went to TIFF (where it won the People's Choice Midnight Madness Award), there were distribution deals, it's opening huge in Taiwan. It's been sold to streaming services in China. It'll be playing in Japan. So the recovery is not the issue here," he says.
We start walking around the neighbourhood and talk, and it's easy to see why Matunga, with its airy bungalows and leafy avenues, book stores, eateries and coaching centres and schools, is like a world unto itself. It is one of the reasons Mard looks and feels different from most of the films set in Mumbai — even the surnames of neighbours, doctors, a Dravid, a Chaurasia, seem different. "You see films of Coen Brothers, or Tarantino, and you suddenly discover a different side of America. The names of the characters aren't all just William or Robert," he says; he mentions Edgar Wright's The Cornetto Trilogy.
Bala says growing up in Matunga almost felt like growing up in a small town — guarded, and almost idyllic in a way that immigrants never think of the city. He says Mumbai's first impression on the outsider is the crowd, and then the sea. It's only gradually that one settles down and then "starts going to the grocery store, or meet friends, in floaters and shorts". Bala experienced that in reverse. It came as a rude shock when he moved closer to Andheri, where all the film work is. Bala has worked closely with Anurag Kashyap, and has co-written films such as Raman Raghav 2.0 and Bombay Velvet (apart from making a couple of short films). But after the dispiriting experience of his first feature film Peddlers (which also went to TIFF) not getting a release, Bala decided to go back to where he came from. "This was like going back to a happier place, the only happy place I know," he says.
The happy place had heroes and villains. The chain snatchers, that Mard's Surya vows to avenge, were a real menace in Matunga back in the day. As shown in the movie, they operated on motorbikes, and even nicked his mother's necklace. A phenomenon unique to the area "because for all middle class people, the only wealth to show off was gold: earrings, gold studs, chains." There was no dearth of local bravura. There was always the guy "who did some insane BMS cycle stunts." Or the guy "who did Moonwalk on the stage in school." Or the karate master who broke a hundred bricks. The latter is the inspiration for the character of Karate Mani (played by Gulshan Devaiah), a one-legged martial artist Surya grows up idolising. Bala says the practise of putting "a degree before a name" is a very South Indian obsession. "Kamal Haasan puts Padmashree in all his titles. Even if you are an honorary PHD, you say Dr Jayalalitha. There is reverence and acknowledgement," he says. A Karate Suresh, Mani, or Anand, he says, is "still a tradition in Bangalore, Tamil Nadu, or, if you probably go deep down in Dharavi."
Inspired by a senior in his building, Bala had got initiated in karate, training for a year at the Gujarati Seva Mandal. With its muddy fields replaced by manicured lawns, and the practise hall covered with french windows with dark glasses, the club has been beautified. The security guard almost sounds surprised when Bala asks him if they still teach Karate; instead he tells us about yoga classes that take place now. Bala is glad that at least it hasn't been converted into a marriage hall.
As the sun grows strong during the walk, Bala, within a short interval, stops twice to buy water – like Surya, who needs to keep himself hydrated because of a rare medical condition that doesn't let him feel physical pain. In the film, Surya turns his disadvantage into a superpower of sorts, and becomes a local crimefighter. The stunts in Mard, choreographed by an indie action group from Los Angeles, has been done without ropes, and largely without safety equipment.
Bala makes a convincing case for — wait for it — Shah Rukh Khan as an action star. "The songs that he did was a mix of action and choreography. The way he would spin and land on his knee, even in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa – the simplest shot of walking over taxis, without even looking at it, that's great stunt-work…
Bala is an action film buff with a deep understanding of the genre. He laments that camera and editing tricks have resulted in less and less of real stunt work in movies. It's a delight to hear Bala rhapsodise about the subject. He talks about his favourite stunt men in Indian cinema, which he deconstructs with sound logic. He rates Amitabh Bachchan as "one of the greatest stuntman actors" — "The scissor move that he would do, where he, even at 6 ft 3', would jump, entangle his four opponent with his legs, and tumble them down, is like a wrestling move".
About his generation loving Mithun and Rajinikanth unironically he says, "I don't think we were looking at 'acting' at all. We were looking at someone who is expressing himself with some honesty and some swagger, something which you lacked in real life, and those people had." He credits Akshay Kumar for re-introducing "clean fights" in Hindi cinema — "They are throwing eggs on him, he is doing that front split, and he is sliding through that. It's like we hadn't seen anything like that. I am still a huge fan."
Bala makes a convincing case for — wait for it — Shah Rukh Khan as an action star. "The songs that he did was a mix of action and choreography. The way he would spin and land on his knee… Even in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, the simplest shot of walking over taxis, without even looking at it: That's great stunt-work. If you see Anjaam, he is speeding on that fiat taxi somewhere around Marine Lines, and from the top he jumps on to the bonnet…Even in the song "Chaand Taare Tod Laaoon", the way he actually lands on to the bonnet of a vintage vehicle and breaks it… It just seemed magical. It wasn't just dancing. They were actually stunts that could go wrong," he says
Mard is as much about a love for the movies as it is about a place and its people — although in Bala's case, the two are difficult to tell apart. (It is much less about plot, which Bala says wasn't his primary motivation to make the film). We walk towards Aurora cinema, that hallowed single screen which has served the area's movie-mad fans for decades. Bala has memories of standing in the queue, waiting for the show to get over so that the next one begins, and being able to hear the audio of the film's climax portions. Aurora is playing Kesari, and not Bala's film. He looks at the show times, still written in hand. "I so so wish Mard was playing at Aurora, even if it was one show," he says.